EMERYVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Uma Valeti slices into a pan-fried chicken cutlet in the kitchen of his startup, Memphis Meats. He sniffs the tender morsel before chewing it slowly, absorbing the taste.
“Our chicken is chicken ... you’ve got to taste it to believe it,” Valeti said.
This is no ordinary piece of poultry. No chicken was raised or slaughtered to harvest the meat. It was produced in a laboratory by extracting cells from a chicken and feeding them in a nutrient broth until the cell culture grew into raw meat.
Memphis Meats, based in Emeryville, California, is one of a growing number of startups worldwide that are making cell-based or cultured meat. They want to offer an alternative to traditional meat production that they say is damaging the environment and causing unnecessary harm to animals.
“We’re actually preserving the choice of eating meat for people. Instead of saying give up eating meat or eat a meat alternative, we’re saying continue eating the meat that you love,” said Valeti, a former cardiologist who co-founded Memphis Meats in 2015.
The company, which also has produced cell-grown duck meat and beef, has attracted investments from food giants Cargill and Tyson Foods, as well as billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
A report released in June by consulting firm A.T. Kearney predicts that by 2040, cultured meat will make up 35% of meat consumed worldwide, while plant-based alternatives will make up 25%.
But first cultured meat must overcome significant challenges, including bringing down the cost of production, showing regulators it’s safe and enticing consumers to take a bite.
“We’re a long way off from becoming a commercial reality because there are many hurdles we have to tackle,” said Ricardo San Martin, research director of the alternative meat program at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t know if consumers are going to buy this or not.”
Supporters say cell-based protein is more sustainable than traditional meat because it doesn’t require the land, water and crops needed to raise livestock.
“And we know there’s a massive market for people that want delicious meat that doesn’t require animal slaughter,” said Brian Spears, who founded a San Francisco startup called New Age Meats that served its cell-based pork sausages to curious foodies at a tasting last fall.
Finless Foods, another U.S. startup, is making cultured fish and seafood.
“The ocean is a very fragile ecosystem, and we are really driving it to the brink of collapse,” CEO Michael Selden said. “By moving human consumption of seafood out of the ocean and onto land, and creating it in this cleaner way, we can basically do something that’s better for everybody.”
The emerging industry moved a step closer to market in March when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to jointly oversee the production and labeling of cell-based meat.
Cell-based meat companies face resistance from U.S. livestock producers, which have been lobbying states to restrict the “meat” label to food products derived from slaughtered animals.
“There’s still many, many unknowns about these cell-based products,” said Eric Mittenthal of the North American Meat Institute.